Ray Charles, was a pioneering American pianist and soul singer who helped shape the sound of rhythm and blues and brought a soulful sound to everything from country music to pop standards to a now-iconic rendition of “America the Beautiful”. Frank Sinatra called him “the only genius in the business”.
He was born in 1930. His name was shortened to Ray Charles when he entered show business to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Charles began going blind at around age five and was totally blind by age seven. He said that the causes were undiagnosed, but many believe it was as a result of glaucoma. Just before his eyes began to fail, he witnessed his younger brother, George, drown in a washtub. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida as a charity case; he learned how to read Braille, as well as to write music and play various instruments. While he was there, his mother, who had raised him, died.
After he left school, Charles began working as a musician in Florida, eventually moving to Seattle in 1947. He soon started recording, achieving his first hit song with “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” .
Early influences on his work were Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. While his first recordings were only skillful imitations of his heroes, Charles’ music soon became more innovative. He toured with Lowell Fulson and worked with Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown. After joining Atlantic Records, Charles’ sound became more original. For example, Charles controversially adapted secular lyrics to many gospel songs, and then played them with jazz backgrounds.
His first hit in this mode
was “Mess Around” which was based on the 1929 classic “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by Pinetop Smith and written by Ahmet Ertegun, his producer at Atlantic Records. He had another hit with the rap-like urban jive of “It Should Have Been Me” but went into high gear with the gospel drive of “I Got A Woman”. This was followed by “This Little Girl of Mine” “Drown in My Own Tears” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Lonely Avenue” half of them were gospel songs converted with secular lyrics, and the others blues ballads.
Although Charles was criticized for singing gospel songs with secular lyrics, there is a long tradition of putting religious lyrics to popular songs and vice versa. See Thomas A. Dorsey, one of the founders of gospel music, who also had a significant career in secular music. Solomon Burke and Little Richard also moved between the two styles.
After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream success with ” The Right Time” and his 1957 signature song, “What’d I Say”. The essence of this phase of his career can be heard on his live album Ray Charles In Person, recorded before a mostly African American audience in Atlanta in 1958. This album also features the first public performance of “What’d I Say”. It broke out as a hit in Atlanta from the tape, months before it was recorded in the studio in a two-part version with better fidelity.
Charles had already begun to go beyond the limits of his blues-gospel synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him The Genius. He recorded with large orchestras and with jazz artists like Milt Jackson and even made his first country music cover with Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”.
Then, he moved on to ABC Records. At ABC, Charles had a great deal of control over his music, and broadened his approach, not on experimental side projects, but with pop music, resulting in such hits as “Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road, Jack”. In 1962, Charles surprised his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included the numbers “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “You Don’t Know Me”. This was followed by a series of hits, including “You Are My Sunshine” “Crying Time” “Busted” and “Unchain My Heart”.
In 1961, Charles cancelled a concert scheduled to take place in the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia to protest segregated seating. Contrary to what the biopic Ray says, he was never banned in Georgia, although he did have to pay the promoter compensation.
In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for seventeen years. It was his third arrest for the offense, but he avoided prison time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole and defiantly released Ashford and Simpson’s “Lets Go Get Stoned”. .
After the 1960s, Charles’ releases were hit-or-miss, with some massive hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed as unoriginal and staid. He concentrated largely on live performances, although his version of “Georgia On My Mind” a Hoagy Carmichael song originally written for a girl named Georgia, was a hit and soon was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of “America the Beautiful”. In 1980 Charles made a musical cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.
In the late 1980s, a number of events increased Ray’s recognition among young audiences. In 1985, “Night Time is the Right Time” was featured in the episode “Happy Anniversary” of The Cosby Show. Cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped the show secure its wide viewership. In 1986, he collaborated with Billy Joel on “Baby Grand” for Joel’s album The Bridge. In 1987, Charles guest-starred in the episode “Hit the Road, Chad” of Who’s the Boss. Charles performed the song, “Always a Friend”. Charles’ new connection with audiences helped secure a spokesmanship for Diet Pepsi. In this highly successful advertising campaign, Charles popularized the catchphrase “You’ve got the right one, baby!” At the height of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for quite a few projects. These included the INXS song “Please ” on the Full Moon, Dirty Hearts album, as well as the theme song for Designing Women in its sixth season. He also appeared on long time friend Quincy Jones’ hit I’ll Be Good To You in 1990. In 2004 he did a duets album, Genius Loves Company, which got nominated in the Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the year and Record of the year. He won Album of the year and record of the year. A duet with Norah Jones, Here We Go Again, was nominated for Best Song.
Cover of a posthumous release, Genius Loves Company. One of Charles’ last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D. C. He performed “Georgia On My Mind” and “America the Beautiful” though the singer was a bit slower and had some more vocal difficulty than in his younger days. Ray Charles’ final public appearance came on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as an historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles.
He died at age 73 of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, surrounded by family and friends. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, released after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B. B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Johnny Mathis.
Unlike a similar Frank Sinatra album, the duets were recorded face-to-face, with both performers in the studio at the same time.
Charles was significantly involved in the critically-acclaimed biopic Ray, an October 2004 film which portrays his life and career between 1930 and 1966 and stars Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Best Actor Academy Award for the role.
Before shooting could begin, however, director Taylor Hackford brought Foxx to meet Charles, who heard that the younger man was an accomplished pianist and insisted that they sit down at two pianos and jam. For two hours, Charles challenged Foxx, who revealed the depth of his talent, and finally, Charles stood up, hugged Foxx, and proclaimed, “He’s the one. he can do it” thus giving his blessing.
Charles was able to attend a showing of the completed film, but he died before it opened in theaters.
The film’s credits note that he is survived by 12 children, 21 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
Many of today’s artists continue to honor the legacy of Charles. The 2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him, and Alicia Keys performed a virtual duet with Charles – that is, a clip of Charles performing “America the Beautiful” was played on the Jumbotron screen, while Keys sang live – at Super Bowl XXXIX.
Charles was posthumously awarded a Grammy for his work on Genius Loves Company.
Charles’s estate is worth an estimated $100 million.
Recognition in Halls of Fame.
He was an original inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and the Playboy Hall of Fame.
Despite his support of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s and his support for the civil rights movement, Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981 despite an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy. He faced pickets in South Africa and in 15 North American cities he toured subsequently including Albany, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. The United Nations agency supporting the boycott asked him to apologize and promise not to visit South Africa until the abolition of apartheid to which he responded that they could “kindly kiss far end”. Despite having described himself as a “Hubert Humphrey Democrat” Charles accepted $100,000 to perform “America the Beautiful” at former U. S. president Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ball. In response to criticism, his manager, Roy Adams, commented: “For that kind of money he would have sung ‘America the Beautiful’ at a Ku Klux Klan rally”.
A notorious ladies’ man, Charles was married twice and fathered twelve children by seven different women. In a 60 Minutes profile, he admitted to Ed Bradley that he “auditioned” his female back-up singers. The saying was, “To be a Raelette, you’ve got to let Ray”.
From the time of his switch from straight rhythm and blues with a combo, Charles was often accused of selling out. He left behind his classic formulation of rhythm and blues to sing country music, pop songs, and soft-drink commercials. In the process, he went from a niche audience to worldwide fame.